Relativism and Ethical Judgements

ray scupin (scupin@LC.LINDENWOOD.EDU)
Sun, 1 May 1994 12:07:13 -0500

Dear Colleagues:

I would like to post my disagreement with Bob Graber and Dwight
Read regarding the distinction between cultural relativism and ethical
relativism, and making ethical judgements. Both Graber and Read suggest
that making ethical judgements interferes with ethnographic research, and
somehow as an anthropologist we ought to suspend our ethical judgements

Let's say that we are doing research in Africa among a tribal
group that practices female genital mutilation. This issue has been the
subject of numerous writings including that of Alice Walker. Surely, as
an ethnographer we can have a good understanding of this practice through
the study of its history, its function as a creator of status for females
within the society, its link to patriarchy and other political values,
attitudes, and institutions. We can do interviews, oral histories,
observations, etc. But, in what sense can we temporarily suspend our
ethical judgements of such a horrific practice??? And if we do make a
judgement, in what way does that interfere with our humanistic or
scientific understanding or explanation of the practice???

I believe that we could as anthropologists, work with indigenous
anthropologists in the area to understand and explain these practices, and
aim at helping reduce practices such as these. We make the judgements,
based on the "universal" recognition of pain, not our specific standards
of morality----and we use our resources as anthropologists qua
anthropologists to help eliminate harmful practices.

Again, I recommend Hatch's book for good background reading and
setting the stage for this type of work. Thanks to Cliff Sloane for
recognizing my point.

Ray Scupin
Sociology/Anthropology Dept.
Lindenwood College
209 S. Kingshighway
St. Charles, MO 63301
314-949-4730 (Office)
314-949-9244 (Home)
314-949-4910 (Fax)

Not chaos-like, together crushed and bruised,
But, as the world harmoniously confused:
Where order in variety we see,
And where, though all things differ, all agree

Alexander Pope